"NRx" vs. "Prog" Assumptions: Locating the Sources of Disagreement Between Neoreactionaries and Progressives (Part 1)

by Matthew_Opitz 11 min read4th Sep 2014340 comments


I know that many people on LessWrong want nothing to do with "neoreaction."  It does seem strange that a website commonly associated with techno-futurism, such as LessWrong, would end up with even the most tangential networked association with an intellectual current, such as neoreaction, that commonly includes nostalgia for absolute monarchies and other avatistic obessions.


Perhaps blame it on Yvain, AKA Scott Alexander of slatestarcodex.com for attaching this strange intellectual node to LessWrong. ; ) That's at least how I found out about neoreaction, and I doubt that I am alone in this.


Certainly many on LessWrong would view any association with "neoreaction" as a Greek gift to be avoided. I understand the concept of keeping "well-kept gardens" and of politics being the "mind-killer," although some at LessWrong have argued that some of the most important questions humanity will face in the next decades will be questions that are unavoidably "political" in nature. Yes, "politics is hard mode," but so is life itself, and you don't get better at hard mode without practicing in hard mode.


LessWrong proclaims itself as a community devoted to refining the art of rationality. One aspect of the art of rationality is locating the true sources of disagreement between two parties who want to communicate with each other, but who can't help but talk past each other in different languages due to having radically different pre-existing assumptions.


I believe that this is the problem that any discourse between neoreaction and progressivism currently faces.


Even if you have no interest at all in neoreaction or progressivism as ideologies, I invite you to read this analysis as a case study in locating sources of disagreement between ideologies that have different unspoken assumptions. I will try to steelman neoreaction as much as I can, despite the fact that I am more sympathetic to the progressivist point of view.


In particular, I am interested in the following question:  to what extent do neoreactionary and progressive disagreements stem from judgments that merely differ in degree?  (For example, being slightly more or less pessimistic about X, Y, and Z propositions).  Or to what extent do neoreactionary and progressive disagreements stem from assumptions that are qualitatively different?


Normative vs. descriptive assumptions

"Normative" statements are "ought" statements, or judgments of value. "Descriptive" statements are "is" statements, or depictions of reality. While neoreaction and progressivism have a lot of differing descriptive assumptions, there is really only one fundamental normative disagreement, which I will address first.


Normative disagreement #1: Progressivism's subjective values vs. Neoreaction's objective[?] values

As I see it, Progressivism says, "Our subjective values are worth pursuing in and of themselves just because it makes us feel good. It does not particularly matter where our values come from. Perhaps we are Cartesian dualists—unmoved movers with free will—who invent our values in an act of existential creation. Or perhaps our values are biological programming—spandrels manufactured by Nature, or as the neoreactionaries personify it, "Gnon." It doesn't matter. In principle, if we could rewire our reward circuits to give us pleasure/fun/novelty/happiness/sadness/tragedy/suffering/whatever we desire* in response to whatever Nature had the automatic (or modified) disposition to offer us, then those good feelings would be just as worthwhile as anything else. (This is why neoreactionaries perceive progressive values as "nihilistic.")


According to this formulation, most LessWrongers, being averse to wireheading in principle, are not full-fledged progressives at this most fundamental level.  (Perhaps this explains some of the counter-intuitive overlap between the LessWrong and neoreactionary thoughtsphere....) 


[Editorial:  In my view, coming to terms with the obvious benefit of wireheading is the ultimate "red pill" to swallow. I am a progressive who would happily wirehead as long as I had concluded beforehand that I had adequately secured its completely automatic perpetuation even in the absence of any further input from me...although an optional override to shut it down and return me to the non-wireheaded state would not be unwelcome, just in case I had miscalculated and found that the system did not attend to my every wish as anticipated.]


*Note that I am aware that our subjective values are complex and that we are "Godshatter." Nevertheless, this does not seem to me to be a fundamental impediment to wireheading. In principle, we should be able to dissect every last little bit of this "Godshatter" and figure out exactly what we want in all of its diversity...and then we can start designing a system of wireheading to give it to us. Is this not what Friendly AI is all about? Doesn't Friendly AI = Wireheading Done "Right"? Alternatively, we could re-wire ourselves to not be Godshatter, and to have a very simple list of things that would make us feel good. I am open to either one. LessWrongers, being neoreactionaries at heart (see below), would insist on maintaining our human complexity, our Godshatter values, and making our wireheading laboriously work around that. Okay, fine. I'll compromise...as long as I get my wireheading in some form. ; )


Neoreaction says, "There is objective value in the principle of "perpetuating biological and/or civilizational complexity" itself*; the best way to perpetuate biological and/or civilizational complexity is to "serve Gnon" (i.e. devote our efforts to fulfilling nature's pre-requisites for perpetuating our biologial and/or civilizational complexity); our subjective values are spandrels manufactured by natural selection/Gnon; insofar as our subjective values motivate us to serve Gnon and thereby ensure the perpetuation of biological and/or civilizational complexity, our subjective values are useful. (For example, natural selection makes sex a subjective value by making it pleasurable, which then motivates us to perpetuate our biological complexity). But, insofar as our subjective values mislead us from serving Gnon (such as by making non-procreative sex still feel good) and jeopardize our biological/civilizational perpetuation, we must sacrifice our subjective values for the objective good of perpetuating our biological/civilizational complexity" (such as by buckling down and having procreative sex even if one would personally rather not enjoy raising kids).


*Note that different NRx thinkers might have different definitions about what counts as biological or civilizational "complexity" worthy of perpetuating...it could be "Western Civilization," "the White Race," "Homo sapiens," "one's own genetic material," "intelligence, whether encoded in human brains or silicon AI," "human complexity/Godshatter," etc. This has led to the so-called "neoreactionary trichotomy"—3 wings of the neoreactionary movement: Christian traditionalists, ethno-nationalists, and techno-commercialists. 


Most LessWrongers probably agree with neoreactionaries on this fundamental normative assumption, with the typical objective good of LessWrongers being "human complexity/Godshatter," and thus the "techno-commercialist" wing of neoreaction being the one that typically finds the most interest among LessWrongers.


[Editorial:  pesumably, each neoreactionary is choosing his/her objective target of allegiance (such as "Western Civilization") because of the warm fuzzies that the idea elicits in him/herself. Has it ever occurred to neoreactionaries that humans' occasional predilection for being awed by a system bigger than themselves (such as "Western Civilization") and sacrificing for that system is itself a "mere" evolutionary spandrel?]


Now, in an attempt to steelman neoreaction's normative assumption, I would characterize it thus: "In the most ultimate sense, neoreactionaries find the pursuit of subjective values just as worthwhile as progressives do. However, neoreactionaries are aware that human beings are short-sighted creatures with finite discount windows. If we tell ourselves that we should pursue our subjective values, we won't end up pursuing those subjective values in a farsighted way that involves, for example, maintaining a functioning civilization so that people continue to follow laws and don't rob or stab each other. Instead, we will invariably party it up and pursue short-term subjective values to the detriment of our long-term subjective values. So instead of admitting to ourselves that we are really interested in subjective value in the long run, we have to tell ourselves a noble lie that we are actually serving some higher objective purpose in order to motivate our primate brains to stick to what will happen to be good for subjective values in the long run."


Indeed, I have found some neoreactionary writers muse on the problem of wanting to believe in God because it would serve as a unifying and motivating objective good, and lamenting the fact that they cannot bring themselves to do so.


Now, onto the descriptive disagreements....


Descriptive assumption #1: Humanity can master nature (progressivism) vs. Nature will always end up mastering humanity (neoreaction).

Whereas progressives tend to have optimism that humankind can incrementally master the laws of nature (not change them, but master them, as in intelligently work around them, much like how we have worked around but not changed gravitation by inventing airplanes), neoreactionaries have a dour pessimism that humankind under-estimates the extent to which the laws of nature constantly pull our puppet strings.  Far from being able to ever master nature, humankind will always be mastered by nature, by nature's command to "race to the bottom" in order to out-reproduce, out-compete one's rivals, even if that means having to sacrifice the nice things in life.


For specific ways in which nature threatens to master humanity unless humanity somehow finds a way to exert tremendous efforts at collective coordination against nature, see Scott Alexander's "Meditations on Moloch."


Most progressives presumably hold out hope that we can collectively coordinate to overcome Moloch.  If nature and its incentives threaten humanity with the strongest and most ruthless conquering the weak and charitable, perhaps we create a world government to prevent that.  If nature and its incentives drive down wages to subsistence level, perhaps we create a global minimum wage.  If humanity is threatened with dysgenic decline, perhaps a democratic world government organizes a eugenics program. 


Descriptive assumption #2:  On average, people have, or can be trained to have, far-sighted discount functions (progressivism), vs. people typically have short-sighted discount functions (neoreaction). 

Part of the progressive assumption about humanity being able to master nature is that ordinary people are rational enough to see the big picture and submit to such controls if they are needed to avoid the disasters of Moloch.  Part of the neoreactionary assumption about nature always mastering humanity is that, except for some bright outliers, most people are short-sighted primates who will insist on trading long-term well-being for short-term frills.


Descriptive assumption #3: Culture is a variable mostly dependent on material conditions (progressivism) vs. Culture is an independent variable with respect to material conditions (neoreaction).

Neoreactionaries often claim that life seems so much better in modern times in comparison to, say, 400 years ago, only because of our technological advancement since then has compensated for, and hidden, how our culture has rotted in the meantime. Neoreactionaries argue that, if one could combine our modern technology with, let's say, an absolute monarchy, then life would be so much better. This assumption of being able to mix & match material conditions and political systems, or material conditions and culture, depends on an assumption that culture and social institutions are essentially independent variables. Perhaps with enough will, we can try to make any set of technologies work well with any set of cultural and social institutions.


Progressives, whether they realize it or not, are probably subtly influenced, instead, by the "historical materialist" (AKA Marxist) view of society which argues that certain material conditions and material incentives tend to automatically generate certain cultural and social responses.


For example, to Marx, increased agricultural productivity in the late middle ages and Renaissance due to better agricultural technologies was a pre-requisite for the "Acts of Enclosure" in England, which booted the "surplus" farmers off of the farms and into the cities as propertyless proletarians who would be willing to work for a wage. Likewise, technologies like steam power were pre-requisites for providing an unprecedentedly profitable way of employing these proletarians to make a profit. (Otherwise, the proletarians might have just been left to rot on the street unemployed, with their numbers dwindling in Malthusian fashion). And because there were new avenues for making a profit, the people who stood to gain from chasing these new profit incentives produced new cultural habits and laws that would enable them to pursue these incentives more effectively. One of these new sets of laws was "laissez-faire" economics. Another was liberal democracy.


To a progressive, the proposition that we could, even theoretically, run our modern technological society through an absolute monarchy would probably seem preposterous. It is not even an option. Our modern society is too complex, with too many conflicting interests to reconcile through any system that prohibits the peaceful discovery and negotiation of these varied interests through a democratic process involving "voice." In reality, people are not content with being able only to exercise the "right of exit" from institutions or governments that they don't like. Perhaps the powerless have no choice but to immigrate. But elites have, historically, more often chosen to stand and fight rather than gracefully exit. Hence, feudalism, civil wars brought on by crises of royal succession, Masonic orders, factions, political parties, "special interest groups," and so on.


Progressives would say, "Do you honestly think that you can tame these beasts, when even a dictator like Hitler was just as much beholden to juggling interest groups and power blocs around him as he was the real dictator of events?" Ah, but the neoreactionaries will say, "Hitler's Nazism was still "demotist." It made the mistake of trying to justify itself to the public, if not through elections, then at least implicitly. We won't do that." To which progressives might say, "You might not want to justify yourself to the rabble and to elite power blocs, but they will demand it—and not because they are all infected by some mysterious mental virus called the "Cathedral," but because they see a way to gain an advantage through politics, and in the modern era they have the means and coordination to effectively fight for it."


These are just examples. The take-away point is that, for progressives, culture appears to be more of a dependent variable, not a variable that is independent of material conditions. So, according to progressives, you can't say, "Let's just combine today's technology with absolute monarchy, and voilà!"


Descriptive assumption #4: Western society is currently anabolic/ascendant (progressivism) vs. catabolic/decadent (neoreaction).

Neoreaction often gets caricatured as claiming that "things are getting worse" or "have been getting worse for the past x number of years." This paints a weak straw-man of neoreaction because, on the surface, things seem so much "obviously" better now than ever. However, this isn't quite what neoreactionaries claim.


Neoreactionaries actually claim that Western society is decaying (note the subtle difference). Western society is gradually weakening its ability to reproduce itself. It is, to use a farming metaphor, eating up its seed-corn on present consumption, on insant gratification, which causes things to seem really swell on the surface...for now. However, according to neoreactionaries, conditions might not yet be getting worse on average (although they will point to inner city violence and other signs that conditions already have started to get worse in some places), but Western society's "capital stock" is getting worse, is already dwindling.


Envisioned more broadly, a society's "capital" is not just its money. It is its entire basket of tangible and intangible assets that help it reproduce and expand itself. So a society's "capital" would also include things like its citizens, its birth rates, its habits of harmonious gender relations, its education, its habits of civil propriety, its sustaining myths (such as patriotism or religion), its infrastructure, its environmental health [although NRxers tend to not focus on this], etc.


Another term for "decadence" might be "catabolic collapse." A catabolic collapse is when an organism starts consuming its own muscles, its own seed-corn, if you will, in a last-ditch effort to stay alive. By contrast, an "anabolic" process is one that builds muscle—one that saves up capital, if you will. (Hence, "anabolic" steroids).


Neoreactionaries believe that Western society is currently headed for a "catabolic collapse."  (See John Michael Greer, author of "How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse."  Oddly enough, John Michael Greer started out 10 years ago as a trendy name in anarcho-primitivist intellectual circles.  Now his ideas have been embraced by some neoreactionaries such as Nick Land, which makes me ponder whether anarcho-primitivism is really of the "left" or "right" to begin with...)


When it comes to progressives, most, I think, would argue that Western society is not currently catabolic/decadent. Granted, they would point to some problems with "unsustainability," especially with regards to environmental pollution, resource depletion, and maybe public debt levels (especially worrisome to the libertarian-minded). But on the whole, progressives are still optimistic that these problems can be overcome without rolling back liberal democracy.


Now, let's look at some specific worries that neoreaction has about Western decadence....


Descriptive Assumption #5: Our biggest population threat is overshoot and the attendant resource depletion, environmental pollution, and immiseration of living standards (progressivism) vs. Our biggest population threat is a demographic death spiral (neoreaction).

One thing I have noticed when looking at neoreactionary websites is that they are really obsessed with birth rates! They argue that countries with fertility below replacement level are on the road to annihilation. I found this interesting because my first impulse is to feel like this globe is getting too damn crowded.


Perhaps neoreactionaries envision the birth rates to stay below replacement level from here on out—that this is a permanent change. Perhaps they foresee world population following a sort of bell-shaped curve. My naive progressive assumption is that our population is already in a slight overshoot beyond what can be sustained at our current level of technology, and that any present declines in birth rates are probably just enough to bring us into the oscillating plateau of a typical S-shaped popoulation curve, and that better economic prospects could easily reverse the trend. My naive progressive assumption is that raising kids will remain sufficiently fun and interesting to a large enough pool of adults that, given enough of a feeling of economic security, people will happily continue having kids in sufficient numbers to prevent a die-off of Homo sapiens. In other words, most progressives like myself would not see the need to roll back gender norms in Western society at the present time for the sake of popping out more babies.


Perhaps what worries neoreactionaries, though, is not so much the fear of a global planetary baby shortage, but rather a localized baby shortage among Westerners or Whites. Maybe they fear that all babies are not created equal....


Descriptive assumption #6: "Immigrants are OK" (progressivism) vs. "Immigrants will jeopardize Western Civilization/the White Race/intelligent human complexity/etc." (neoreaction)

Progressives say, "It is not a big deal if Western society has to import some immigrants to keep its population topped off. Immigrant cultures will eventually blend with the "nativist" culture. Historically, this has turned out OK, despite xenophobic fears every time that it will end in disaster. The immigrants will mostly assimilate into the nativist culture. The nativist culture will pick up a few new habits from the immigrants (some of them helpful, some of them harmful, but on the balance nothing disastrous). Nor will the immigrants dirty the nativist gene pool with bad genes. As far as we can tell so far, no significant genetic differences in intelligence and/or physical vigor exist between immigrants and non-immigrants."


Neoreactionaries say, "It is a very big deal if Western society has to import some immigrants to keep its population topped off. Immigrant cultures will not assimilate with the nativist culture. Immigrant cultures will end up imparting a net influene of bad habits on the native culture. Civil decency will be eroded. Crime and societal dysfunction will increase. The native gene pool will also be dirtied with lower-intelligence immigrant genes. (And the only reason we can't see this is because the progressive Establishment AKA the "Cathedral" has systematically distorted the research and discourse around IQ). At worst, Western cities will act as "IQ Shredders." Any intelligent immigrants who seize economic opportunities in wealthy Western cities will see their fertility rates plummet, and the idiots will inherit the Earth à la the movie "Idiocracy"."


More to come in subsequent parts....